Although I am an avid sports fan, soccer has never really been a favorite of mine. I enjoy watching World Cup matches, because the stakes are high, and you’re watching the best of the best playing matches that matter. But in general, like most Americans, the lack of scoring in soccer invariably leaves me wanting more.
I have, however, always been aware of, and fascinated by, the extent to which soccer is the world’s sport, even if America has been reluctant to accept it as such. In virtually every country around the world, little kids can be seen kicking a soccer ball around, even on the poorest urban streets. Your team is a part of your identity at a primal level. No sport inflames passions the way soccer does. At its best, it can generate endless chanting of team songs, as I was “privileged” to hear for hours on end while waiting for a flight to Argentina a few years ago. At its worst, it can lead to violence and racism, from England to Israel.
During the past week, the soccer world was dealt a body blow of the most jarring kind when the U.S. Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, in coordination with other international law enforcement authorities, announced the indictment of fourteen soccer officials.
And just a few days ago, the most severe blow was dealt when Sepp Blatter, the four-term President of the Federational Internationale de Football Association, soccer’s most important world organization and sponsor of the World Cup, was forced to resign.
What fascinates me is the degree to which human beings can ignore or deny evidence that what they love is corrupt.
Here in America, the sports that we characterize as “American” have not lacked for heroes found, ultimately, to be all too human. Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player of his time or any time, was found to have been involved in betting on a large scale. Though he was not accused of betting on basketball, his betting, and the compromising position it placed him in, almost surely forced his early retirement.
Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader in baseball, was barred from baseball for life for having bet on games. Alex Rodriguez, a once-in-a-lifetime baseball talent, is only now back in baseball after a yearlong suspension for use of outlawed human growth hormones. Adrian Peterson is only now returning to professional football after a suspension for inappropriate corporal punishment of his four-year-old child. Ray Rice, another football player, knocked his wife unconscious in a New Jersey casino elevator.
And this is far from a complete list.
None of these sports appear to have suffered any kind of diminution of fan interest or involvement due to the fall of their heroes. In fact, a number of these players are back, having been “rehabilitated.” It reminds me a bit of Arlo Guthrie’s famous song “Alice’s Restaurant,” when the army officer at the draft center asks the potential draftee with a previous arrest if he has “rehabilitated himself.”
Ask any Yankee fan these days whether it matters to him/her that Alex Rodriguez is a proven liar and a cheat. I would suggest that what matters more is that Mr. Rodriguez is one of the team leaders in home runs. The truth is that he gets far more cheers than boos when he’s introduced at Yankee Stadium. People don’t want to give up on their sports heroes, especially when they’re still being productive.
And then there is the religious world.
For years, Jews and others have looked at the Catholic Church in horror as so many priests were found to be pedophiles. Even worse, the church hierarchy tried to hide their pedophilia by re-assigning these priests to other parishes. But events in recent years have forced us to reassess the smugness of our assumptions about the purity of our own camp, and the painful reality of our own problems becomes more apparent by the day. So does the difficulty we have in owning up to them.
Across denominational lines, respected colleagues have proven themselves to be less than worthy of the admiration and even reverence of their congregants, who in many instances continue to believe in their innocence. We have learned how hard it is to surrender belief in cherished heroes, and how our love of the synagogue world and religious life as we know it invariably trumps our disappointment in those who fall from grace.
So, Sepp Blatter and the whole rotten world of FIFA notwithstanding, children will still be kicking soccer balls around the streets of the world and wearing the jerseys of their favorite players, and there will be games this weekend in Manchester, Barcelona and all over the world. The World Cup will still be the single most watched sporting event, even when it’s played in Russia in 2018 and Qatar in 2022, both of which spent millions of dollars in bribes to secure the rights.
After all, how else do you get FIFA to agree to schedule a soccer tournament in a country like Qatar, where the average day-time temperature in the summer, when the World Cup is commonly played, is somewhere around 120 degrees?
Professional sports are big business, and the World Cup is professional sports’ biggest event, bigger than anyone of us can comprehend. As the saying goes, power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. FIFA is absolutely corrupt, but the devoted fans of the world just want the games to go on, corruption notwithstanding. And so they will go on.
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.